Technical

Mythbusting: Baofengs Radios

You see these radios everywhere; influencers trying to look technically competent post pictures of their Baofengs constantly. Why is that bad? Let's dive in.

January 5, 2021
By:
ISG Team

Introduction

The Baofeng radio has been the gold standard for preppers and instagram edge lords who want to appear technically competent. To most, the Baofeng is the entry level HAM radio for non-radio guys. It's cheap, programmable, and boasts a broad array of channels. In short, it was the non-HAM radio guy's HAM radio; the perfect handheld to get around licensing and technical competence while still having the capability. Being cheap, they're the perfect radio to "hand off" in an emergency.

If you know your radios, you don't need to be told, and if you don't, you probably don't know how a HAM radio is *supposed* to work... this means that legions of wildly ill-equipped end users have embraced the device without really knowing enough to know WHY it's a good choice.

Here's the truth: 

It isn't. It's actually awful, and is probably best understood as the "Hi-Point" or 'lifestraw' of handheld HAM radios.

"Dude, I thought you had a Baofeng?"
"Um, yeah, I do. Let's just use these for now."


Why?

Poor Assembly

The first issue on hand is simply the quality of manufacture. There are entire web pages floating around simply explaining how to get and keep the batteries in the radio during normal operation. The case of the radio itself is poorly and cheaply made, and the batteries are notorious for either not fitting into the radio to begin with, or for fitting so loosely that they fall out at inopportune times.

Worse, the batteries have an erratic propensity to overheat and melt when charging.

While there is a quality difference in material between Big 3 radios made in China vs those made in Japan, there’s nothing glaring such as the issues that are seen regularly with Baofeng radios. We wouldn’t put up with a firearm with many examples of the magazine not fitting and/or staying in the magazine well.

Why would we accept that with radio gear?


Transmitter Issues

Next up, we have transmitter issues. While rated at 5W of output, like many handheld tranceivers, many will not put out the full 5W that they’re advertised to emit. Antenna analyzers are very useful, not only for assessing RF exposure with higher output devices, but for verifying equipment will do what it’s advertised to do. In this case, there are examples across the internet of inconsistencies of the actual power output, in many cases as few as 2-3W of actual power. These are even examples measured with aftermarket antennas, since it’s well known that the radios that come in the box are of very poor quality. 

Another issue with the transmitter is along the lines of spurious emissions. While not interfering with the operation of the radio itself, what it does do is create interference that affects other radio users, many of whom have gone out of their way to buy quality equipment. Baofeng radios will not only transmit on the frequency that’s input into the radio, but will transmit on other frequencies as well, in some cases close to the same output power as the intended frequency. While not quite as frequent of an issues, the transmitted frequency can be off ever so slightly as well. This can still be received and understood, but it’s still not ideal operation and creates noise in the transmission. 


Receiver Issues

Much like the transmitter, the receiver has its own issues. Robert Richardson of Off Grid Survival, a long time ham radio operator who bought multiple examples of the UV-5R2+ to evaluate, noted a significant difference in transmissions the Baofeng received vs what examples of Big 3 radios received in A/B testing. Again, much like transmitter evaluations that have been done, this was done with an aftermarket antenna to remove that variable. Whether using voice modes or data/packet modes, a transmission that can’t be received is no good to whoever is trying to receive it. 

Yes, But... (part 1)

"A guy set his on fire!", "Mine works fine!", and/or "You can't beat it for the price!"

The biggest thing to consider here isn't just how yours works by itself - that's occasionally problematic, but the bigger issue is how the Baofeng is going to function over the long haul with other radios, and whether or not you've got one that's going to hold up, given the hit or miss quality control. Like anything, your experience and expectations are going to be the first step in determining what's a reasonable choice, and if you're essentially looking for a walkie-talkie, the Baofeng might do it for you.

You'll find scores of people on social media and YouTube who love theirs, as well. Well and good. We'd simply ask that you consider the following:

  1. What is this persons level of technical competence?
  2. How long as this person been fielding the equipment?
  3. In what enviroment? 
  4. At what level of intensity?

Doing so, you'll usually find that the Baofeng gets glowing reviews from people who use them as "around the yard" walkie-talkies or 'cheap insurance'. Again, just like the lifestraw, this is generally an amalgam of three modes of thought:

  1. It's better than nothing
  2. It's 'cheap insurance'
  3. It fits in my bug out bag

This is fine, as taking some steps is better than nothing. Just be open to the idea that these aren't long term solutions... they're stopgap measures.

They also set themselves on fire, as it turns out. While this can happen to most electronics, cheaply made products tend to have more issues.


iTs NoT LeGaL

The bulk of the outrage you hear from the blogosphere or among HROs (HAM Radio Operators) generally comes in the form of weak tea "Hey, that's illegal!"

Our primary concern begins with emergencies, and there are actually provisions for HAM radio use by non-licensed personnel in emergencies, so with that said, you need a radio that *actually* works in an emergency. Given that the Baofeng has a spotty record of functioning during the best of times, and HAM radios actually play a huge role in disaster response.

Another prime example of why an amateur radio license is useful, is as of the time of this writing, Nashville experienced powerful blast that affected communications throughout the area. While it's just AT&T affected this time, this is the THIRD major communication outage in Nashville since 2010 (with multiple instances of networks being overwhelmed in that span). The other two were weather related. One being the flood of 2010, as well as periodic severe weather. There is a very robust ham radio community in the area that's been relaying information where needed all day.

Handing off a piece of technical equipment that doesn't function properly when needed during an emergency is far more important to us than "is it legal", because while it might not be legal, no one will die if you freeband a HAM radio during an emergency, but the reality is that if you don't have the knowledge required by the license, you probably won't have the skills to make that HAM radio much more than a walkie-talkie.

Given that "Communicate" is one of the big three (maneuver, shooting, communication), it legitimately could cause death for a person who doesn't know the ins and outs to grab a radio that doesn't work well during an emergency.

'Dogshit' Anecdote (one of a great many)

During a training event, our team was handed a 4-plex of Baofengs, batteries, and headsets to use as a part of a surveillance practical. From the moment those radios hit the desk, they were an absolute nightmare. Some would stick on PTT, others wouldn't seem to lock on to a frequency (probably caused by a repeater offset setting, but we never got around to figuring it out), others would glitch out, or the battery wouldn't seat correctly and it'd switch off.

Adding to the comedy which was troubleshooting our comms before trying to actually put in some work was that no two radios had the same problem.

To remedy the problem, we all switched to ZELLO on our cellphones, which worked only slightly better, before realizing that ALL of these solutions were inferior to simply scrounging our pockets and looking for a payphone. During the debrief, we brought up the issue with comms and were told:

"We use Baofengs because they're awful; The radios don't work consistently and force the students to troubleshoot and waste time."

Realistically, if you're working overseas on surveillance, a prepaid cell phone is going to put you ahead of the game, and cost you just about as much.

If you're worried about cellular communications, you have a couple realistic choices:

  1. Satellite phones (#1)
  2. GOOD HAM Radios (ones that work, don't shut off when you don't want them to, and can be easily programmed by an end user using software like CHIRP)

For domestic emergencies, the HAM has a lot of benefits. Most of our civil communications infrastructure is done through HAM radio operators, and with a little local knowledge of repeaters, you can manage to skim a good bit of information, or get messages out.

A proper rig with a tuned antenna, whether mobile or base, will push out substantially more power (25-50 watts, compared to a handheld's 1.5W-maaaaybe 10W), more reliably.

That means better clarity and consistency over longer distances.

While a few handheld radios can be very beneficial for small groups who aren't going far from one another, you'd be better off having one high quality HAM radio capable of receiving and transmitting over a few miles to a vehicle base station, which can hit repeaters and communicate with base stations closer to civilization.  

In short, the "get a Baofeng" crowd is elbowing their way to the front of the line to state the equivalent of "check the box", rather than provide an intelligent communications plan... technical competence can't be bought, so round file any notions that it can, and get to work.

What are my options?

Now, with all this said, there ARE things you can do to make the Baofeng a little more reliable.

  1. A replacement battery pack may fit better, and overcome some of the problems with fitment in the radio and in the charger. It's never bad to have an extra, in any case.
  2. A longer, aftermarket antenna will help with transmission clarity and range.
  3. Programming the radio using software like CHIRP can simplify the programming

With HAM radios pushing more and more towards features like APRS, which essentially allows you to use your radio like a makeshift Blue Force Tracker/Text Messenger (that can even communicate locations to cell phones), the Baofeng and other, older handheld HAM radios are probably on their way out for anything more than some informal handheld communications outside of cell networks.

As a handheld for Search and Rescue, or emergency operations, there are better options for around the same prices as an upgraded Baofeng, and while many people cite price (rightly so) as a consideration in what they buy, the HAM radio world is FILLED with high quality, well priced used radios.

The reason is less like used cars (I better sell this before it explodes) and more like guns (I bought this and found this other thing that I like better), which means you can generally find a solid discount on a lightly used, and still very serviceable radio.

ICOM, Kenwood, and Yaesu all offer handheld HAM radios that will accomplish the same things while being more reliable. Here are a few options that cost under $150, and will deliver reliability and consistency the Baofeng just won't:

Yaesu FT4XR

ICOM IC V86

Kenwood TH K20A

Drew has the older FT-65R that the FT-4XR is based on, and while it is not currently his primary radio, it has proven itself over the years. For the FRS frequencies, the Midland radios that are sold everywhere from Wal-Mart to various outdoors shows (such as Bass Pro) are of a consistent quality and are reliable for that usage. Also note that the current generations of Baofeng radios are prohibited by FCC rules from operating on FRS/GMRS frequencies while handhelds FRS/GMRS are not.

Yes, But... (Part 2)

"I have no interest in radios", "it's only for emergencies", and/or "it's what I was willing to spend"

This is something that comes up often enough that it deserves a subsection. Most of us aren't Radioheads (enthusiasts, not the band from the 90's), and we've pursued the HAM radio skillset for the utility, not the passion. That's perfectly fine, but if you haven't found yourself in an emergency and utterly without communications for a few days, it's easy to forget that with time on your hands and no means of communication, you might find it does wonders for your motivation.

Very similar to the lifestraw thing, the emergency is NOT the time to find out that your checked box is insufficient. You're better off with a $100 Katadyne, and you're better off with a $100 Yaesu, and it's hard to explain to people why having the shittiest possible option during an emergency is to be avoided.

Said another way - if the best you can do is show up to the party with a radio someone else will have to program, you'll be ahead of the game if you bring them a decent one.

If you bring a Baofeng as your only source of commo, don't be surprised if it winds up a liability.

Conclusion

We see so many of the “influencers” out there who put all kinds of time and effort into their weapons setup, and that gets the most attention. But much like physical fitness is overlooked, commo is just as overlooked, if not moreso.

The old “shoot, move, communicate” adage has unfortunately been reduced to simply “shoot” as far as the priority lists that people look to. No reputable person would argue that a Taurus or Hi Point semi auto pistol is a reliable EDC alternative, and as a result, people go out of their way to spend big money on their weapons setup. But a tricked out Glock isn’t going to help you during a natural disaster when traditional communications go down. So why do we not put the same effort to communication alternatives that we do to firearms that were much more unlikely to need?

It is well known that telephone and internet communications go down during natural disasters. While it’s easy to grab a Baofeng and throw it into a go bag, you can spend $50 more and get a radio that will work when you need it to. Compared to the price difference between a $2-300 Taurus/Hi Point and a $4-500 Glock/S&W that nobody bats an eye at, it’s hard to argue that the Baofeng isn't the Hi-Point of the radio world. 

Guys, we can't convince everyone of everything, and this isn't to tell you all you need to throw your Baofeng in the trash and go buy what we recommend or use. If it's what you've got, it's what you've got.

Just be reasonable about understanding the problems with these radios, and the risks associated with relying on them in an emergency. Simply being aware that they have extremely spotty track records is the first step. The next is getting out there and using them to failure, so you know where that line is.

Cheers,
ISG Team

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